“Sacrificed in the Name of Global Power”: How US Nuclear Policy Harmed Native American Nations

by John Whitehead

The lethal effects of nuclear weapons in wartime are well known. What is less appreciated is how nuclear weapons can kill and hurt people in other ways, through their production, their testing, and the waste they create.

The United States’ creation of its vast nuclear weapons arsenal has harmed many beyond the tens of thousands of people killed by the wartime use of nuclear weapons at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. The harm caused by US nuclear weapons production and testing has frequently fallen on oppressed and vulnerable people. With grim symmetry, many of these victims of US nuclear policy have been members of the original victims of US foreign policy: Native American nations.

Over the decades, Native American nations have variously been forced from their land so that land could be used for nuclear-related activities; have had their health and lands damaged by the production of nuclear weapons; have been harmed by nuclear testing; and have had their land targeted for nuclear waste disposal.

Dispossessed of Land. The original US effort to build nuclear weapons, the Manhattan Project, involved appropriating areas within the United States for Project activities.

One such area was Hanford, a small town in southeastern Washington close to the Columbia River. Hanford was also home to the Wanapum Nation, while the Nez Perce, Yakama, and Umatilla Nations used the Columbia River basin for fishing and other purposes. Nez Perce elder Veronica Taylor recalled Hanford as being “kind of like a farmer’s market, where people came and traded goods and materials and foods with each other.”

In 1943, General Leslie Groves, the Manhattan Project’s head, decided Hanford would be the location of nuclear reactors to produce plutonium, one of the elements used to make nuclear weapons. The residents of Hanford and a neighboring town were required to relocate. Although white residents were given some compensation for the military takeover of the area, Native Americans were not. Rex Buck, Jr., a Wanapum Nation member whose family was displaced by the Manhattan Project, says his relatives received the vague explanation “that in order to protect the United States of America, they were going to do something here.”

Harmed by Weapons Production. Both during the Manhattan Project and afterwards, building nuclear weapons has generally required the metal uranium. Uranium can serve as the “fuel” to power a nuclear weapon or can be used in a nuclear reactor, such as those built at Hanford, to create the other fuel for nuclear weapons, plutonium. Mining and processing uranium is a dangerous process, though, because of the potential for exposure to radioactive or otherwise toxic material.

US nuclear weapons production drew on uranium mined from land in Arizona, New Mexico, and Utah that belonged to the Navajo Nation. Such uranium mining, which lasted from World War II until the 1980s, also employed Navajo as workers. Miners received little protective gear, however, and uranium debris created from the mining would contaminate Navajo communities, including water supplies.

Industrial refining of uranium also harmed the Navajo Nation. Radioactive waste produced by refining (or “milling”) uranium in the southwest contaminated water in Navajo land. An especially severe 1979 incident led to 94 million gallons of waste spilling into a local river; some drinking water subsequently had radioactivity levels 7,000 times the accepted legal limit. In the decades following the start of uranium mining on their land, cancer rates doubled within the Navajo Nation.

Contamination occurred at Hanford as well. The former home of the Wanapum and others ultimately became the site of nine nuclear reactors. The Hanford reactors produced plutonium for the “Fat Man” bomb dropped on Nagasaki and for subsequent bombs built during the Cold War. Hanford’s nuclear activities also produced significant amounts of radioactive or otherwise hazardous waste that contaminated the land and the Columbia River. Decades after the last Hanford reactor shut down in 1987, the area was still undergoing environmental clean-up operations and waste was still contaminating the Columbia.

Members of Native American nations lament this contamination of land so important to them. Taylor says that many of her fellow Nez Perce “don’t want to come over here and dig roots anymore [in the Hanford area] because of…what has happened to the ground.” Gabriel Bohnee of the Nez Perce Nation’s Environmental Restoration and Waste Management Office comments, “The environment was sacrificed in the name of global power.”

Harmed by Nuclear Testing. Most Cold War-era testing of nuclear weapons by the United States occurred at what was known as the Nevada Test Site, located about 65 miles northwest of Las Vegas. The test site is also located on the territory of the Shoshone Nation, which shares land with Nevada and Idaho. From the 1950s to the 1990s, over 900 nuclear weapons tests were carried out on Shoshone land. Ian Zabarte, the Principal Man of the Western Bands of the Shoshone Nation, comments that this US nuclear testing made the Shoshone “the most bombed nation on earth.”

Nuclear testing, especially above-ground testing, creates huge amounts of dangerous radioactive fallout. A 2009 study estimated 620 kilotons of fallout affected Nevada, Arizona, and Utah during the decades of US nuclear testing. The Shoshone would have been especially vulnerable to fallout, as they hunt and eat the region’s wildlife and would ingest contaminated meat that way.

Zabarte notes that multiple members of his extended family have had cancer and other health problems; one uncle died from cancer. Regarding the tests’ fallout, he comments, “The pine trees we use for food and heating were exposed, the plants we use for food and medicine were exposed, the animals we use for food were exposed. We were exposed.”

Targeted for Nuclear Waste Disposal. The nuclear weapons-related activities that exposed Native Americans and their land to so much harm have left a legacy. More than 500 abandoned uranium mines remain on Navajo land and continue to pose dangers. Only a few years ago, the EPA reported that contaminated groundwater at Hanford continues to be a hazard.

Another aspect of this legacy is government and corporate efforts to store nuclear waste on Native American lands. Such lands presumably have been targeted partly because environmental regulations are weaker in Native American lands and partly because the poverty and relative lack of political power among Native American nations makes them less able to resist further contamination of their land. They have resisted, however, and such resistance continues today.

One ongoing struggle is over efforts to turn Yucca Mountain, on Shoshone land in Nevada, into a storage site for nuclear waste. The Shoshone, as well as the state of Nevada, have resisted this plan. Preventing waste stored in the mountain from contaminating the environment would require installing titanium drip shields so water does not corrode the storage containers—and then maintaining such protection for centuries. As Zabarte comments, “Are we going to trust [that] America is going to be around to put in drip shields in 100 years?”

The Biden administration also currently opposes the Yucca Mountain plan. The danger that nuclear waste will be stored there remains a real possibility, however, until Congress passes appropriate laws preventing nuclear waste from being stored on Native American lands.

Beyond preventing nuclear waste dumping, other specific public policy steps could help lessen the damage to Native American nations from US nuclear activities:

  • Existing hazardous sites, such as uranium mines or the Hanford site, need to be adequately cleaned and contained. For more information on efforts to address uranium mines, see the work of the organization Clean Up the Mines.

  • Compensation to those harmed by nuclear testing and uranium mining should be expanded. A federal bill (H.R.5338/S.2798) introduced in 2021 aims to do this.

Please consider contacting your representatives in the House and Senate to urge them to support efforts to prevent nuclear waste storage on Native American land, to clean up existing hazardous sites, and to provide compensation to those harmed by various aspects of nuclear weapons production.

The terrible harm US nuclear policy has caused to Native American nations is part of a long history, both of the United States’ many injustices toward these nations and of nuclear-armed nations building up their own power at the expense of more vulnerable people. Weapons of mass destruction and racial injustice are intertwined threats to life.

Disclaimer: The views presented in the Rehumanize Blog do not necessarily represent the views of all members, contributors, or donors. We exist to present a forum for discussion within the Consistent Life Ethic, to promote discourse and present an opportunity for peer review and dialogue.